Stories Kept, Stories Told

Two girls walking down the street in Chicago in the summer with backpacks Photo : Alanna Bagladi

I was pretty young the first time it happened. My mom and I were on our way home from my aunt’s house, and unexpectedly, we veered off the road and into a Target parking lot. The impromptu shopping trip led us to buying absolutely nothing, wandering around aimlessly and then eventually getting back into the car to see that my dad had left five voicemails on my mom’s phone. We made our way home, and before hopping out of the car my mom leaned over and said, “If your dad asks, Auntie Micha kept us at the door, talking our ears off, and that’s why we didn’t answer his calls. Don’t worry. Just a little story.”

I opened the door, and there was my dad. “We didn’t answer your calls because Auntie Micha kept us at the door talking our ears off!” I answered without even being asked. He looked confused, shook his head, and wandered off.

It wasn’t much longer before I started to realize the importance of the stories my mother and I kept between each other. Early on, I realized the rules that I obeyed at my house weren’t going to be the same as the rules my friends had. Being an Arab girl was simply not the same as being like other girls I knew, or even being my brother. My hangouts had strict timelines. There absolutely could be no boys there, and the parents had to be verified by my mother twice over before my dad allowed me to step foot in their house. After school snacks? I hope you know my dad said no pepperoni pizza, so I had to get it out of there before he found out.

It started to get laborious. I wanted to date. I wanted to go to pool parties and the movies with everyone in my class. And my mother wanted that for me, too. So, slowly but surely, she started to help me craft the stories that would allow me to skate the fine line between being an American girl and being an Arab girl.

“I’m going to hang out with Courtney!” I would say, as my mom dropped me off at my boyfriend’s house. “It’s a Girls Night, dad!” As I would sneak off to a party. The older I got, the more vital these stories became.

Later on, I realized these stories were not going to age well. I couldn’t remember who or what was involved in the stories that made up my entire adolescence. “When was the last time you saw Courtney?” My dad would ask, and I would flush pink thinking “Who the fuck is Courtney? When was I her friend? What did we use that name for!”

At 25, I realize my father hasn’t met anyone of significance in my life, just these constant fictitious characters in the stories that helped me feel American. 

Recently, one of my cousins got pregnant. Out of wedlock. As an Arab. I remember when she told me, I panicked for her. “What are we going to tell your dad! Should we say you sat on a toilet seat? That God implanted you? That you fell asleep on the train and someone injected you with semen?”

“No. I got pregnant. We’re going to tell them I’m pregnant.”

I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her mouth. She was going to tell our family the truth. I could come up with millions of stories to help save face, but I realized all this time that I had been delicately dancing through these lies, she had never taken the time to weave her own web of stories.

She had always taken it upon herself to be honest with her own mixed identity. Whether it had been going to prom with her dress of choice or openly dating.  She confronted her family at times that I would have hidden. Maybe she had felt the shame that came upon that, but she was always brave and authentic.

I am proud of her. I am excited for her. But above all, I am empowered by her. If she was able to open up about who she was, I should be able to slowly paint the picture of who I really am.

Leila Mustafa : Will get into a street fight and cry to a Coke commercial in the same hour.